The Columbus Blue Jackets will open the 2022-23 NHL season with heightened but realistic expectations.
The addition of Johnny Gaudreau and the internal growth of one of the youngest teams in the league should alone improve the club, but the NHL is an unforgiving place. The last competitive hockey that most of us watched - a Stanley Cup Finals for the ages between the stacked Colorado Avalanche and the borderline dynastic Tampa Bay Lightning - proves that there is still quite a gap between pretenders and contenders.
Yes, the Blue Jackets should take a step forward this year, but they still have a few key holes that they need to fill with the right personnel. After watching the club's top prospects compete up in Traverse City, MI, it's possible that said personnel is already in the organization.
Here are three gaps the club needs to fill with the appropriate caliber of player to take the step into the playoff conversation:
All-Star Caliber First Line Center
Earlier this week, the Avalanche signed star center Nathan MacKinnon to a record-breaking 8-year, $100.8M contract extension. Somehow, he's still probably underpaid. Former Blue Jackets staffer turned Avalanche GM Chris MacFarland called him a unicorn, noting that there aren't 31 (sic) of those in the NHL.
If it seems like the Blue Jackets have been hunting for a 1C for forever, it's because they have been. Perhaps Cole Sillinger rises to that level. Maybe Kent Johnson, who has played primarily at the wing in recent years but has a background at center, makes that leap. Hell, maybe the Jack Roslovic that we saw for the final 20+ games of 2021-22 is that guy. Regardless, Boone Jenner is likely to get a crack at that spot to begin the year, and while he's a good player, he's not the bonafide 1C that the organization covets. And while I'm willing to hear the argument that a winger like Gaudreau controls the puck as a defacto center, I'd like to see the last Stanley Cup winner that didn't have an All-Star caliber 1C on the roster.
Top-Pairing Right-Shot Defenseman
Zach Werenski is an excellent defenseman but he lacks a partner on the top pairing that can truly complement his game. The left side of the blueline is more well-defined, with Werenski (first), Gavrikov (second), and some combination of Gavin Bayreuther and Jake Bean likely slotting on the third pair. On the right side, the organization is hoping that someone, like Andrew Peeke, Adam Boqvist, Erik Gudbranson, or even Nick Blankenburg, can take another step this season. The truth is that if the Blue Jackets had a left-handed shot that could benefit Werenski on the top pair, that would suffice, but that player doesn't exist, either.
Like Johnson/Sillinger above, it's possible (hopeful) that the player described and craves here is recent sixth-overall pick David Jiricek. Also worth mentioning is 2021 first-rounder Corson Ceulemans, though it's unlikely that his ceiling reaches that level.
Second-Line Scoring Winger
Assuming that Gaudreau and Patrik Laine comprise the wingers on the top line, it's easy to pencil in second-line wingers like Jakub Voracek and Gus Nyquist. While both are still solid contributors to an NHL franchise, neither are threatening goal scorers. Again, perhaps this player is already in the organization - Johnson? Kirill Marchenko? Yegor Chinakhov? - but none of those players are established ... yet.
A season ago, Colorado's entire first line (Rantanen-MacKinnon-Landeskog) had 30+ goals, and their entire second line (Nichushkin-Kadri-Burakovsky) had 20+ goals. For reference, the Blue Jackets last season's top goal-scorer, Oliver Bjorkstrand, had only 28 goals. Yes, Gaudreau should more than replace those 28 goals, but the fact of the matter is the club's forward group is crowded, but not necessarily irreplaceable.
It's unlikely that the Blue Jackets fill all - or maybe even any - of these three gaps this year. A hopeful but realistic scenario is that Sillinger and Johnson take steps in the right direction, Jiricek continues to develop, and Marchenko shows he can play at the NHL level. If that all happens, these holes will be filled, and the club will be in the mix when the games really start to matter.